In 2006 Corinne Bailey Rae released her self-titled debut album, a record she had recorded on a shoestring budget while still unsigned. An early appearance on BBC2’s Later With Jools Holland and some intimate gigs around the UK had already started a word-of-mouth buzz leading her to be tipped as the next big thing. But the success of that album was instant and immense. Debuting at Number One in the UK, featuring hit singles such as ‘Put Your Records On’ and ‘Like A Star’, becoming a smash-hit around the world, and crashing straight into the Billboard Top 20 in the US – the first British female singer-songwriter to do so in decades – meant Bailey Rae gained a huge global audience within months.
And now, four years and four-million album sales later, comes the long-awaited second album. For the 30-year-old singer and songwriter from Leeds, this meant politely declining the suggestions that she work with this or that big-league producer in this or that big-money studio. It meant co-producing the album herself with friends and musicians she had worked with in the past to retain intimacy and control, shrugging off the huge, worldwide expectations engendered by the self-titled debut and refusing to be bedazzled by that album’s multiple Grammy and Brit Award nominations.
It also meant embracing the pain she’d experienced and finally, ultimately, this meant ‘The Sea’, a collection of songs about grief and hope, despair and inspiration, loss and love. “I wanted to be open,” explains Corinne. “I’m really aware that I can’t hide any of my feelings. With music I feel like it’s the one time when I don’t have to think and I don’t have to contrive anything. So that’s how this record turned out. It’s not contrived. It’s just open.”
It’s an album that will elevate Bailey Rae beyond her already-considerable achievements – Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Arctic Monkeys are but some of luminaries who have been floored by the vocal and writing talents of this young woman. This fan of Curtis Mayfield and Donny Hathaway is way too unassuming to say it herself, but others can: ‘The Sea’ is an album that puts her up there with the all-time greats.
“All these songs have come from me,” says Bailey Rae, “and they’re all about capturing a performance with musicians I know and trust.” They were recorded mostly in Limefield Studios, a magical house in suburban Manchester co-owned by Steve Brown (who co-produced the tracks recorded there) which was once an old ballroom and has been converted into a recording space. Here, under the gaze of huge mirrors and a chandelier jostling for space amongst elegant, ageing furniture and a grand piano, Corinne and her band played the songs she had written. “I love making music there. It has an air of faded glamour and I’ve been to some great parties there. It seemed like the perfect place to record.”
Further recording took place in Bailey Rae’s own home in Leeds and with her other co-producer Steve Chrisanthou at his 600 Feet studio – literally 600 feet up a Yorkshire hillside. There was an excursion to Manchester, to record strings and horns at the Royal Northern College Of Music. And on a trip further afield to Los Angeles to contribute songs to ‘Lay It Down’, last year’s album by soul legend Al Green, Bailey Rae worked with drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and keyboard player James Poyser of The Roots to create the trashy funk of ‘The Blackest Lily’.
She named the latter after The Black Lily, “a night that Ahmir used to run on Sundays,” she explains. “He’d get a chef to come to his house, and Jill Scott and Erykah Badu and the rest of The Roots would come along. All the Philadelphia scene would jam and hang out and have food. I thought, I’d love to be a part of a community like that. Am I part of a scene like that, or do I feel a bit on my own? And I just liked the image of the blackest lily.”
Corinne acknowledges now that since writing that track, “I really do feel part of a dynamic musical group now, an arts community,” and it is this group of musicians and friends that have been an integral part of ‘The Sea’, driving along the similarly rollicking jams of ‘Paris Nights / New York Mornings’ and ‘Paper Dolls’ amongst many others. For the latter, this most intuitive of songwriters came up with the “conversational” middle eight when she was walking to the post box. It’s Bailey Rae’s reflection on how people’s expectations, “force you into a certain shape, but also how you can get out of that too”, and based on her memories of being friends with “bad girls” at school, even though, she laughs, “I was really straight and nerdy”.
Even closer to home is the haunting title track, the first song Bailey Rae recorded for the album. “We recorded it in a barn near Scarborough in winter, very close to the sea itself. It was freezing cold, the wind was wild and the air was very different that night. And above us was an amazing sky full of stars as there were no street lights for miles. It’s a very special recording to me”.
A beautiful, elegiac end to the album – “Goodbye paradise,” sings Bailey Rae in a quiet husk as strings, autoharp, piano and celestial backing vocals crescendo – ‘The Sea’ is about a family tragedy: Bailey Rae’s maternal grandfather died in a boating accident. “It was a family story that I had grown up with and never asked much about, but I had never realised that my aunt had been there, on the beach, when it happened. She could see it unfolding but was powerless to do anything about it. It made me think about how that grief and sense of powerlessness can shape a person, watching something that’s going to change your life for ever? So really that song is about how that grief has affected her. And obviously it’s strange to me having lost Jason since then that I was thinking so much about grief.”
Jason Rae, a gifted saxophonist and Corinne Bailey Rae’s husband, died in March 2008. ‘I’d Do It All Again’, a sweeping, defiant but woozy song – and the first single – is one of the many songs written before this.
“It’s a love song, but a difficult love song – it’s about when things are really difficult, to the point where they’re actually hurting your pride. I wrote it after this big argument we had. And it just sorta came out of me as I was playing my guitar. It’s really special to me because of how it came about. It didn’t feel like it was a really conscious thing. It’s just a demonstration of my commitment. Despite what happens – you might get trampled or destroyed by it – it’s a love you can’t stop. And,” she adds, “I really like the way the song’s come off. It all builds to one chorus. I love playing it for that reason,” she smiles. “It’s the one shot.”
Similarly unbidden but also uninhibited is ‘Are You Here’, a song from the sessions that Bailey Rae resumed after a long period of grieving. Boldly, baldly, the song begins the album. “He’s a real live-wire, he’s the best of his kind,” Bailey Rae sings over delicately strummed guitar, “wait till you see those eyes…” On every level it’s devastatingly moving.
“That was another line that just came out,” she says quietly of the title. It is all, she admits, part of her coping with her loss. “I feel like I’ve been playing music and writing and using music to help me with all the different emotions that I’ve been feeling. When I started writing that I was thinking, I don’t really want this song to go into the world, ‘cause it’s so naked… But I had to. “
One of her favourite songs on the album is the jazz-flavoured lament ‘I Would Like To Call It Beauty’. She loves playing it live, loves the almost telepathic interplay she and her drummer enjoy. “I guess that song is about my experiences of late. It’s about grief and what it does and the things it makes you aware of.”
The title comes from a late-night conversation she had with Jason’s younger brother comparing their views of the world. Corinne was speaking about God and Jason’s brother said he believed in a force that binds everything, holds everything. He said, “I would like to call it… beauty”. She was flabbergasted. “What a thing to say! Really we were talking about the same thing…” So powerful was the sentiment that she took it for the song title, and duly credits her late husband’s brother as its co-writer.
“I have experienced a lot of beauty in the loss,” is her remarkable admission, “in the way that I’ve been able to survive. The way I feel like I’m being held - held up. I guess the song is about the amount of beauty that is in grief because of the way that people hold you up, and forces and nature, how they hold you up.”
Overall ‘The Sea’ is, she reflects, in part about the uniting bonds of grief, stretching from her aunt to herself and to all those around her. “All the bonds deepened. And all the dross is washed away as well. Only the purest things survive. That’s one really beautiful thing about it.”
Ultimately, though, ‘The Sea’ covers the waterfront of human emotion. Yes, the worst kind of heartbreak is in there. But so are the best kinds of love, plucked from deep within this most truthful, unflinching of artists. “Everything I do I just want to be real and honest,” Bailey Rae concludes. And this album is without a doubt one of the most honest works of recent years, and one of the most beautiful too.honest,” Bailey Rae concludes. And this album is without a doubt one of the most honest works of recent years, and one of the most beautiful too.